In a Baghdad book market a man with hard eyes takes aim at Saddam's picture. His spittle lands on the dictator's nose

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

20 December 2003

You can't get rid of Saddam Hussein. The day starts with another bomb in the grey, clinging winter grime of Baghdad. An office that belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - an organisation that is neither supreme nor, it seems, really intent on revolution - has been blown up. There were four families living inside and one man has been killed.

The SCIRI is hated by many Sunnis for a simple reason. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, many Baath party members of the army captured by Iranian forces were interrogated and tortured inside Iran by Shia Iraqi exiles from the SCIRI. There are scores to settle.

I find a gaggle of clerics standing in the rubble. It's a pathetic pile of cheap concrete and yellow bricks with some mirrors and carpets just visible beneath the muck. It had been used as a religious school and, later, some bright spark had decided to hang up a notice claiming that it was to be an office of the Badr Brigades, SCIRI's militia. The Iran-Iraq war - another of Saddam's grand follies - thus continues to exact death.

For relief, I drive over to the book market where Baghdad's literati prowl through a cocktail of dust-covered - even evil-smelling - volumes, all displayed on cardboard laid out over muddy pavements. You can buy anything in the book market: Koranic exegesis, posters of the Martyr Hussein, War and Peace in Russian, Joan Collins in paperback, John Le Carré, Nicholas Nickleby in a Penguin original, the philosophy of C E M Joad, even a 12-volume set of Stalin's speeches prepared by the Communist Party of Great Britain. But the face that leers out at me is Saddam's. Books by exiles long banned, new books in Arabic by now former satraps - I was Saddam's Double is my favourite - even a pirated copy of Saddam by a certain Patrick Cockburn. But the real draw is the Saddam-era volumes, the heap of platitudinous, glossy pap once churned out by the Iraqi Ministry of Information.

There are old copies of Al-Goumhouriya newspaper with endless speeches by the "Struggler-Leader", there is Iraq 1990 - edited by the country's last foreign minister, Naji al-Hadithi - with a photo of the smiling "Rais" in matching crimson tie and handkerchief and a long, dissembling article on why the Iran-Iraq war was justified. There is Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi Future by Fouad Matar with its ever-revealing photographs of the man who crawled out of a hole a week ago.

Saddam lighting a cigar for Tito, Saddam clasping the hands of Leonid Brezhnev, Saddam sitting in a jeep with Fidel Castro, Saddam embracing Yasser Arafat, Saddam kissing King Hussein, Saddam glancing suspiciously at the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, with King Fahd, with the late Emir of Bahrain, with ex-president Houari Boumedienne of Algeria, with Sumieman Demirel of Turkey and - another favourite - delivering a chaste kiss to the cheek of a young Jacques Chirac.

They fascinate, these pictures, they hold you in an obscene grasp.

Saddam ruled for so long and caused so much horror and for years he was our friend; and these photographs are now our unhappy memory bank. All that's missing is the handshake with Donald Rumsfeld. I seize upon the back issues of Alef-Ba - AB - which carry Saddam's portrait. He is raising his hand to an imaginary crowd outside the Palestine Hotel - scene of America's pulling down of his statue 24 years later - and he is relaxing in an armchair opposite an equally relaxed Kofi Annan (the year is 1998), he is smiling from a car window wearing an astrakhan hat, fingering a sword at the military museum (while mysteriously wearing a trilby) and appearing on stage in brigadier general's uniform with a white sash round his body. His 30 years in power are marked by a special issue covered in pink roses and topped by Saddam in business suit.

So I buy a selection of this awful stuff and ask Ali Kassem why he sells them. "They have some kind of interest for us," he says. "We have students in Baghdad now who are researching all this and they want the original books. There are people who suffered, who had their loved ones executed, who want to understand what they went through. And there are journalists like you..." Just down the narrow road, a pile of Arabic editions of Newsweek magazine lie on damp cardboard with the dishevelled, captured face of Saddam on the cover. I go up to one man who is studying the face, a big man with hard eyes and he looks at me and then, very carefully, takes aim at the picture. His spittle lands on Saddam's nose.